Smartphones

Extend smartphone functionality with hardware add-ons

You can bring your smartphone closer to being the ultimate "ultra-portable computer" with hardware add-ons. Dell Shinder tells you about some options that are available.

The top-of-the-line desktop computer for which I paid more than $2,000 in 1995 had 8 MB of RAM, a 133 MHz processor, and a gigantic 1 GB of storage. The smartphone I carry today has 512 MB of RAM, a 1 GHz processor, and 8 GB of internal storage. So I was wondering: Could I get by in a pinch with my smartphone as my only computer? The idea sounds a little crazy, considering the fact that I now do most of my work on a powerful Nehalem machine that's connected to four monitors, but after giving it some thought, I concluded that I probably could, with the right peripherals.

After all, my desktop system needs extras - keyboard, mouse, speakers, monitor(s) - to be fully functional. With modern smartphones, there are a number of hardware accessories that you can use to turn your little handheld computer into a reasonable facsimile of a low-end desktop system. Here's a look at some of the options for greatly extending the functionality of your smartphone, maybe even to the point where you don't need to carry a laptop or a tablet.

Connecting to a larger display

One of the biggest limitations of a smartphone is the size of the display. Even today's "super phones," such as the Motorola Droid X, the HTC EVO, and the Dell Streak, still have tiny screens by normal computing standards. Almost all smartphones have built-in cameras and camcorders so you can create movie or pictorial content. Some phones have applications with which you can edit video or photos, but doing so on such a small screen is a challenge because it's difficult to see the details.

However, some smartphones now have HDMI out ports to let you output the display to a TV screen. The EVO, the Droid X, and the Samsung Fascinate are just three of the phones that have this feature. Unfortunately, this isn't quite as great as it might seem, at least not out of the box. One problem is that you'll need a special cable to connect the mini HDMI port on the phone to the regular size HDMI port on your large flat screen. A bigger problem is that the HDMI functionality on your phone may be "crippled." For example, the Droid X will output via HDMI only when in gallery mode; thus, you can only display photos and videos that were taken with the phone's camera. There are workarounds for this, though. For the Droid X, there is an app called Real HDMI that restores the ability to use other video players, applications, and emulators on the big screen TV.

In the future, I expect phones to be able to connect up to monitors or TVs with full functionality, so you can read documents or navigate the phone's applications easily on the big screen.

Bumping up the sound

The audio quality on smartphones has been getting better as more people use their phones to listen to music and watch videos. One of the new Windows Phone 7 phones, the HTC 7 Surround, even has a slide out speaker for virtual surround sound with Dolby Mobile.

With any smartphone, you can get much better sound by using good headphones. However, when you're at home or in your office, you probably don't want to walk around with headphones/earplugs. Fortunately, most phones now have standard 3.5mm audio out jacks, to which you can connect any powered computer speakers. Depending on the model, you may also be able to get a dock for your phone that includes external speakers and volume control (and can charge the phone while it's docked), like the Philips Docking Entertainment System for the iPhone.

Adding storage space

Many smartphones today come with 8, 16, or even 32 GB of storage built in. This seems like a lot of space until you start loading it with HD quality videos - that's where the advantages of a phone with a slot that accepts flash memory, such as a microSD card, come to light. You can currently buy a 32 GB microSD card for under $100. When you add that to a phone that already has 8 GB of internal storage, you have a hefty 40 GB at your disposal.

And although most of the current phone models that accept microSD specify cards up to 32 GB (which is the largest that's readily available to consumers for a reasonable price), it's a safe bet that 64 GB and 128 GB cards will be coming soon. When 8 GB cards came out, it was possible to hack the smartphones that were made for "up to 4 GB" cards to be able to use them, so it's likely a similar fix will pop up to enable the use of the larger cards on today's phones.

What I'd love to see is the ability to plug a compact USB hard drive into a smartphone for external storage and file transfer. Now that many phones have a standardized mini USB port, it shouldn't be that difficult to do. However, it would require a change to the smartphone software since the phones would need to function as a USB host.

Touch typing on a phone

A big obstacle to doing work on a smartphone is the inability to touch type. With practice it's possible to get pretty fast at "thumb typing" on a phone with a slide-out keyboard; I can enter text at around 50 wpm with the Swype virtual keyboard, but for someone who's used to being able to type 80 wpm when using a desktop computer, that's still a drag on productivity.

Many smartphones, such as Windows Mobile, iPhone 3Gs/4, some versions of BlackBerry, the N and E series Nokia phones, some Android phones, and some Sony Ericsson phones, can use the Freedom Pro Bluetooth keyboard. This keyboard enables you to touch type, and it has special keys for answering or ending calls, opening email and calendar, and other common tasks. It runs on standard AAA batteries and folds away for portability.

Cradles rock (and so do docks)

Most early smartphones came with charging docks, but the current trend is to use charging cables that are more portable. Some have even questioned whether docks are becoming extinct.

You can still get special purpose docks as accessories for many models of phones, and the docks can make the phones more functional for those purposes. We already mentioned docks with built-in speakers, and there are desk docks and car docks available for many phone models. For example, Samsung makes a dock for its Galaxy S phones (Fascinate, Captivate, Vibrant) that has an app that will put the phone into "bedside" mode, which turns down the screen brightness and displays easy access to the alarm clock, music, and weather apps. There is also a car dock that lets you mount the phone on your dash or windshield for using the navigation app, playing music, etc.

Now here's something interesting: Microsoft has applied for a patent on a docking station that would turn your smartphone into a functional computer, similar to a laptop docking station. It shows an output for an external display, an Ethernet jack, and a USB hub. It's probably a ways down the road, but it's an idea that could really turn your phone into a fully functional computer when that's what you need. But does the patent application mean that if you want this type of docking functionality, you're going to have to have a Windows Phone 7 phone (or its successor)?

Summary

It's already possible to get things done with a smartphone that we would never have dreamed of being able to do a few years ago. You can bring your smartphone closer to being the ultimate "ultra-portable computer" with some of the hardware add-ons that are currently available. But what's really exciting is what may be coming in the future. I can envision a day when, for many people, the smartphone really could be the only computer you need.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

3 comments
jdev1
jdev1

Try SOTI Pocket Controller Pro. v6.01

DadsPad
DadsPad

Not interested in buying an unlocked, expensive phone. In fact, the carrier must offer a very low cost for me to even consider. :)

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